"At Christmas time we managed a like-for-like of plus 12%. Clearly there's a demand for our food, but the challenge is making it accessible enough for the people who want to buy it. That's where forecourts could play an important part in our plan to reach the communities that wish to buy our meals."
Of course many forecourts already stock Cook meals in their eye-catching freezers think 2016 Forecourt Trader of the Year Award winner Sewell on the go and previous winners Touts and Parkfoot Garage.
The brand has been around for years 20 in fact and Portwood puts its lasting success down to the fact that the company cooks use the same ingredients and techniques that a good cook would use at home. "That was our founding principle in 1997 and today nothing has changed. We are fanatical about the quality of our food. It has to be the best coming second place will not do. We are coming up to our 20th birthday and now have over 85 shops, a thriving home delivery business and hundreds of concessions across the country in farm shops, convenience stores and forecourts, and we are focused on reaching more communities that wish to buy Cook. Perhaps just as exciting is that we have registered as a B Corporation; a tough accreditation which means we are serious about using our business as a force for good in society."
He says the range sells well in convenience stores that have a credible convenience food offer, ideally with premium retail environments and complementary product ranges.
"If these convenience stores happen to also sell petrol, then that makes the overall proposition even more appealing for us and the customer. It's a win-win."
A convenience/forecourt store will have anywhere between two to eight freezers of Cook food. Stockists are treated like partners, which means they effectively have exclusivity for their direct area.
"We have an application process involving filling out a form on our website (www.cookfood.net/concessions) and criteria we consider includes: proximity to existing stockists, store environment, existing product offer and footfall. We have a standard branded concession format which we will set up for the retailer. However, we ask them to make space and buy the freezer equipment at about £900 + VAT per freezer."
Once they have signed up, retailers will get a visit from the merchandising team who will set everything up for them. Then they will benefit from regular visits from Cook's field team to review progress, share best practice and review the range. There's also an office-based team, members of which call retailers each week in case they need to place an order. "Minimal fuss and effort from the retailer's perspective, is what it's all about," says Portwood.
Best-selling lines include Lasagne al Forno, Chicken Ham & Leek Pie, Chicken Tikka Masala and Chicken Alexander. "It's really the meals which people would consider eating every day. Most are available in one, two and four portion sizes and we manage the range for our retailers to ensure that they are stocking the fastest-selling lines.
"The best part is that because Cook is frozen and has a long shelf life, the retailer shouldn't end up with any wastage at all as long as they manage stock rotation well."
New products are launched every six months or so and recipes are trialled first in Cook's own shops to see what sells well before they're launched to the company's retail partners.
Prices are not cheap but then again you get what you pay for. Cook meals cost around £4 for a one portion meal and £8 for a two portion, depending on the recipe.
"All meals are priced on packs so that everyone sells at the same retail price nationwide and retailers will receive 25% margin. With good footfall and appropriate customer base, you can expect two freezers to turnover approximately £28,000 per year and five freezers over £60,000 per year."
Value promotions don't really work on the brand although the company does do some in its own shops. "We have tried promotions lots of times but consumers just seem to value the quality and convenience of the meals more than anything else," says Portwood.
He believes convenience is the reason why Cook works so well in forecourts. "What a perfect way to pick up a quick 'dinner for tonight' that's a good substitute to home cooking, without the hassle of doing it yourself all while you're filling up with petrol," he says.
"We appeal to a wide range of customer groups, from the elderly who want to eat well but don't have the inclination to cook from scratch, to the middle-aged mother who uses Cook to feed the family because she doesn't have enough time. Many of our customers would consider themselves as good cooks in their own right, so they generally appreciate good quality food."
Mintel's recent report on the ready meals market says meals with premium ingredients and/or superfood ingredients will do best in the future meals such as Cook. Portwood says: "We care strongly about striving to make the best prepared food available. We use really good quality ingredients and cook everything with love and flair. It's what our customers want to buy, so yes I suppose we are already well positioned if this trend, flagged up by Mintel, comes to fruition."
David Charman, owner of Parkfoot Garage in West Malling, Kent is full of praise for Cook. He has five of their freezers in his store and wants to put in another two or three. "We don't really have the space so we'll have to take something else out, but we are prepared to do that because the Cook products are so good and the following for the brand so strong.
"Theirs are high-quality, premium products that are adored by the people who buy them. If you're trading in an area where your clientele includes older folks with money then they're ideal.
"My parents buy them all the time. They're not cheap but you get what you pay for. Their Steak, Mushroom & Merlot Pie for six retails at £22.50 but their single meals for £4 represent pretty good value."
Within own-label chilled ready meals, Mintel reports strong growth from M&S at one end of the spectrum as well as from Aldi and Lidl. And in frozen, it says the Iceland chain's link with Slimming World is working really well.
In the convenience sector, last autumn Spar revamped its evening meals range and launched an evening meal campaign.
Three new ready meals reflecting popular flavours from high street restaurants and pubs, were added to the range: Malaysian Butternut Squash Curry, Piri Piri Chicken & Spicy Rice and Meatball Pasta Bake all available at two for £5.
Also launched were two jacket potato ready meals, with either cheese & beans or chilli (both rrp £2). The potatoes are microwaveable in seven minutes.
Spar also refreshed its Italian range with the launch of two new products: Tomato & Mascarpone Sauce and Garlic & Rosemary Flatbread. In addition to this, the range's pasta, sauces and garlic breads underwent a pack redesign to give them a more natural and rustic look.
Susan Darbyshire, Spar UK brand director, said at the time of the revamp: "We know that meal-for-tonight shoppers have bigger baskets, spend more and shop more often, and we also know they want to spend as little time as possible preparing and cooking. So it's vital we can offer them a complete meal solution with tasty recipes that take under 30 minutes to cook."
Meanwhile, a Beef Stew & Dumplings meal has been added to Booker's popular Happy Shopper range, price-marked at just £2.49.
Also available from Booker Retail Partners is the Enjoy range of chilled ready meals, which feature a longer shelf life than typical chilled meals at 24 days. The range comprises Roast Chicken and Roast Beef Dinners and an All Day Breakfast.
Meal for tonight
The 'meal for tonight' shopper mission is not the one most people use a convenience or forecourt store for, but it's no doubt a valuable one. However, according to him!'s CTP 2016, a significant proportion of shoppers aren't confident that their local c-store could provide ingredients for basic meals. While 78% of those surveyed thought they'd be able to buy the ingredients to make a spag bol in their local shop, only 51% of those surveyed thought they'd be able to buy ingredients for a roast dinner. The research company believes retailers should be known for selling solutions rather than just products. It points to point-of-sale material with messaging such as 'What do you fancy tonight?' with product suggestions printed alongside the message, as well as the increasingly popular meal kits think Hello Fresh and Simply Cook. These two are subscription services but manufacturers are selling kits to retailers too. Mintel describes meal kits as a stepping stone to scratch cooking and reports that 66% of 25-34 year olds would like to see a wider variety of meal kits available.
Nisa is targeting the meal-for-tonight mission with a £10 deal, which is similar in style to the grocery multiples' popular meal deal offers.
The group also runs a 'feed the family on a budget' £5 meal deal, designed to provide an easy and affordable teatime meal solution. The promotion offers a different range of products every three weeks at just £5 and is aimed at parents with busy lifestyles wanting to pick up a convenient mid-week evening meal without breaking the bank.
Rising shopper demand for meat-free ready meals is playing a major part in the rapid growth of healthier protein Quorn, the UK's number one meat-free brand (IRI data).
"Shoppers are more health conscious and discerning than ever before. That's why meat free is now firmly established as a destination category as people go in search of healthier options such as Quorn with which they can make really tasty meals," says Julian Cooke, head of UK category management. "And the really good news for forecourt retailers who stock Quorn is that meat-free shoppers spend three times as much in-store as non-meat free shoppers, making a massive difference to the basket spend (Kantar data)."
Current high profile TV advertising, the latest in Quorn's long-running 'deliciously healthy protein' campaign, uses athletes to highlight how easy it is to make great-tasting meals with Quorn as the main ingredient. The latest commercials form part of a heavyweight, sustained TV campaign, which sees Quorn on the small screen for 49 weeks of the year.
"Shopper awareness of Quorn is at an all-time high as we continue to back the brand with record levels of media support, with the promise of much more to come this year," adds Cooke.
"In the process we're attracting non-vegetarians to the brand like never before."